Will a pitcher be the Appel of the Cubs' eye or will they take a third baseman?
That's one of the questions facing the organization as it prepares for Major League Baseball's annual amateur draft, which begins Thursday evening.
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Cubs recent first-roundersThe Cubs hold the second pick in the Major League Baseball amateur draft, which begins Thursday evening. Here is a look at their last five top picks:
2012: OF Albert Almora
Off to fast start for Class A Kane County Cougars
2011: IF Javier Baez
Showing power potential at Class A Daytona
2010: RHP Hayden Simpson
Injured list for independent Southern Illinois Miners; released by Cubs in March
2009: OF Brett Jackson
Playing at Class AAA Iowa
2008: RHP Andrew Cashner
In San Diego Padres rotation (traded by Cubs for 1B Anthony Rizzo)
The Cubs have the second overall pick for the first time since they drafted pitcher Mark Prior in 2001. What the Cubs do depends on whom the Houston Astros select first.
The Astros aren't tipping their hand, but conventional wisdom says they'll take either Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, Oklahoma right-hander Jonathan Gray or University of San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant.
The Cubs will get a good prospect in any event at No. 2, but scouting and player-development chief Jason McLeod met with reporters Sunday at Wrigley Field and told us he and his staff are focusing just as hard on the Nos. 41 and 75 picks they also have.
Last year the Cubs selected Albert Almora with their first pick (sixth overall) and then took pitchers with their next seven picks. After suffering a hand injury in the spring, Almora has come back strong and is off to a fast start with the Kane County Cougars. He had a hitting line of .455/510/.591 over 11 games on 20-for-44 batting entering Wednesday.
Pitcher Pierce Johnson, the Cubs' second selection (43rd overall), also is at Kane County, where he is 3-4 with a 2.89 ERA.
When the Cubs selected Prior in '01, he was a college pitcher out of USC and was in the big leagues during the 2002 season. It's possible a similar situation could happen with either Gray or Appel, but the Cubs aren't counting on it.
"In a perfect world, that would happen," McLeod said. "But last year when we took Albert Almora … anytime you take a high school player, you understand it's going to take a little bit longer.
"We made that selection based on what we felt and still felt that it was the right decision. And Albert in time will be the player we thought he would be.
"Looking at this year and having the No. 2 pick overall, if it happens to be this guy gets here, stays healthy and this player gets here in the next couple of years, great.
"Hopefully we're talking to you all four or five years from now and saying that was a great pick and now look at him out here and he's the player we all thought he would be. That would be wonderful."
McLeod also acknowledges the obvious nature of teams liking Appel and Gray.
"The names you've heard about, they have put themselves in position to be considerations up there," he said. "We all know you need dominant starting pitching to hopefully get to where we want to be and get into the postseason.
"At the same time, you don't want to pigeonhole yourself to only taking based on need. We've been discussing those players a lot, and we need to take the guy we feel gives us the best chance for him to provide significant impact and hopefully get us to where we want to go on a consistent basis."
The Cubs also need productive hitters who work counts and get on base. Those are in short supply in the organization. San Diego's Bryant has extreme power potential, and it's hard to imagine him falling any lower than third, where the Rockies lie in wait.
The Cubs took third baseman Josh Vitters out of high school with the third pick overall in 2007, and it has been slow progress for Vitters.
Bryant hit 31 homers for San Diego, with a line of .329/.493/.820.
I asked McLeod how important it is for the Cubs to bring hitters into the system who "get it," as far as getting on base and having good approaches.
"That's something we spend a lot of time on," he said. "It's no secret that we really try to champion the plate discipline and on-base percentage and all of those things.
"We spend a lot of time talking about it here in the draft room, finding hitters that fit that mold for us. But a lot of times the guys that are those guys don't offer a lot of other things.
"You've got to balance when you find, let's say, a college player who's been the on-base-percentage machine, oftentimes he doesn't run, doesn't play defense, no power.
"But it is something organization wide, from the major leagues on down, we're preaching and trying to preach in our draft: Find those types of hitters. It's hard to go in and see a kid in Michigan who's 17 and predict that he's going to be a plate-discipline guy. You look at approach and things like that."